Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Does counting still count?

Sticking with Sustained Theatre, it's been very interesting seeing the different reactions to it, especially how its relationship to Arts Council has been perceived - is it a report by ACE, for ACE or about ACE etc? The ever-entertaining Article 19 is puzzled and can't see how artists have been given the lead role. It may be they just don't trust what's said about the artists steering group. It may be the artists are saying the 'wrong' thing. They see the site as a sop to avoid real change - though I'm not sure they agree change is needed.

On the other hand, Arts Industry and others are running it as 'ACE told to stop using BME', which is not quite my reading of the report as a whole, although there are certainly some saying that, but wanting another term, not no account taken of patterns relating to background. AI concludes we no longer need to gather data on race, gender ,sexuality and 'to an extent' (whatever that means) age, and disability. That definitely isn't my reading of the Sustained Theatre work. It seems a complacent conclusion. (Which also fails to give any acknowledgement that this is ACE and the artists involved grappling with long-standing, still-debated issues.)

It may be crude, it may feel awkward at times, and there is undoubtedly a long way to go still, but counting has definitely helped make a difference to equality of opportunity. We shouldn't rule it out because it will make some of us feel more at ease that 'great art does not tick boxes'. The time taken to still not achieve equal pay for women, despite legislation, suggests that it's easy to overestimate the natural fairness of the world, left to its own devices.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Can blue men sing the whites?

I’d been thinking about aesthetics and identity a lot since my last post. Then on Friday I saw a trio of fantastic performances by black musicians in the shape of Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers (time off injured last season has improved Gary’s keyboard playing no end, I swear, though he looked a bit different…), topped off by Abram Wilson’s fantastic jazz band reinventing New Orleans jazz whilst covering the Arctic Monkeys, Michael Jackson and James Brown and it felt very much ‘mine’ and very much ‘other’ at the same fun, exhilarating time. Then on Sunday night I watched the wedding reception episode of Gavin And Stacy series one. (Yeah, I know, late catching up – I’m always out at ‘art’, you know.) Which was one of the most pitch perfect bits of writing I’d seen in a long time, and very like the wedding reception I went to in Preston a couple of weeks ago.

So I thought I’d also throw out a Nick Hornby-style ‘Five things that Aren’t Saturday Night Sunday Morning but what is’ list, just for fun…

· The poetry of Jim Burns (a Preston poet to his bones despite moving to Cheshire some years ago, and being the world’s expert on the Beats). Start by looking at a few of his poems on the fantastic Poetry Magazines archive.
· The work of the Side Gallery – treat yourself to a few minutes browsing their website.
· Control by Anton Corbijn – not the whole rock star suicide thing, obviously. But the depiction of bookish grammar school boys and life in Macclesfield has the tang of truth about it. (Looks great too.)
· David Eldridge’s Market Boy. This play definitely rang true from my (mercifully brief) time in London in the 80s, but had a joie de vivre and zest that made me think there is life beyond Northernness… (Would it be fair to call Eldridge Lee Hall’s Essex cousin?)
· The Royle Family can be a bit crude at times but I spent what I think of as literally years sitting on the sofa and brewing up like the Ralph Little character, though I was reading a book too. My mum even looked a bit like Sue Johnson, and although we would never have gone in for the belching, farting, banjo-playing thing, my granddad did have a neat Xmas party trick that involved whipping out his dentures…

Which makes me think that one man's box is another man's identity is another man's cliche, which would take me on to Peter Kay, so it's time to stop.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Identity and aesthetics = chicken and egg?

The Sustained Theatre project, which has launched a website and a number of provocative documents, is a rich example of what can happen when a funder – in this case Arts Council England – opens up projects to leadership by artists. The Whose Theatre report into black theatre led to Sustained Theatre which led to a number of papers, including the one by Professor Gus John and Doctor Samina Zahir, Speaking Truth to Power, which aims to shake up the national debate on ethnicity, identity and the arts.

The paper, which is the first epistolary strategic report I’ve ever seen, demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, how bloody hard our job is, at times. How do we change the way the arts reflect society, and ensure proper openness for people who are not white and middle class, without putting people in boxes, limiting identity and aesthetics and encouraging those in power to simply tick boxes? I’ve never been keen on the term ‘the sector’ which the artist steering group wished to use for the black theatre sector – to avoid the ethnic determinant – and it is clear that neither are many artists, some of whom prefer the term ‘black theatre movement’.

John and Zahir don’t agree with each other on this, or indeed, on much at all – or so it sometimes seems. Their debates are reflective of genuine difficulties, and the paper opens up a debate about aesthetics and identity I find really interesting. I think my aesthetics have played a large part in shaping - changing - my own identity, for instance, in that it was books and literature, not 'background', that led me into education and then employment in the arts. I rarely see my own background reflected well on stage or in galleries, and will swing for the next person who equates the white working class with Shameless-style fecklessness. (Okay, I won’t literally swing for them, as I’m now part of the middle class diaspora of my original ‘ethnic’ group, but they’ll feel the full force of a well-made point, don’t you worry. Then I'll go home to watch A Kind of Loving.)

I also put a tick against this quote: ‘We really must stop fashioning the world on the basis of the peculiarities of London.’ But that’s a whole other post…

Monday, 21 July 2008

How many aberrant apostrophes will you see today?

Sometimes you hear something and you just think: ‘Damn, inconvenient as it is, that’s right, that is. Now how do I change?’ I had such a moment the other day at a talk at Cleveland College of Art & Design by Lord David Puttnam, who despite being a Lord and Chair of umpteen great things, and an Oscar winner, is both a fantastically modest man and a wise man. Asked what was the one thing art colleges such as CCAD should teach their students, he said ‘standards that lead to the very best working practices’. He told a story about his early days in advertising and suggested we (he included himself, though he was just being modest) no longer had the skills or tendency to accept nothing but the best. Management styles and critical cultures were too ready to praise, too ready to accept 'good enough', and too reluctant to genuinely enforce a ‘nothing but the best is good enough’ approach. I think he’s got a point. I think it also has a relevance to how funders work with clients, as there is, to be frank, a resistance (far from universal but also far from rare) to direct feedback on the quality of applications or work, no matter how much people say they want it, which can lead to difficulties in providing it, no matter how much funders say they want to.

Lord Puttnam’s point was that rigour is the best way to learn to be genuinely excellent. There’s a thought for a Monday morning. I’m sure we’d all agree: but how will we live up to it this week?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Anyone for a poetry reading instead of going shopping?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA predicts a rise in ‘post-consumerism’, given the economic downturn and general doom and gloom. He suggests a few trends that might catch hold as a result such as sustainable design and make do and mend. (He also predicts the rise of the vegetarian super chef, which is what I was doing 20 years ago – it never happened, at least not for me, alas…)

I like this idea. Here’s a few more arts-related suggestions for post-consumerist trends:

· People will buy musical instruments (perhaps using the Arts Council’s Take It Away scheme) and spend evenings playing music alone or together
· Music blogs and other digital downloads will make paying for music even more of a fetishistic hangover than it is now
· The older your tour t-shirt the more you’ll be respected
· Dancing will become the new gym membership
· Gallery going will become even more popular as a first date
· The live experience of theatre and music – perhaps the ultimate consumer item as once it’s over, you are (traditionally) left with nothing but memories, the experience having been consumed – will come to always include a free recording, either on cd/dvd as you leave or on-line.
· The women I know in book groups will stop buying books and just go straight to the wine.
· Freecycle will be as big as EBay (Ok, not strictly arts-related though you can probably get the odd instrument and good for props.)

On the other hand: I don’t think this means I have to stop buying cds and old records, does it...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

How could funders build social capital in the arts sector?

The easiest way to write about how Arts Council England can create more ‘social capital’ seems to be to take a leaf from the New Hampshire Community Foundation’s book and make a list of possibly-simple actions. Some of these we do or have done already (at least in the North East) but could do more or more often, and this will remind me to do that amongst all the other stuff there is to do. Some we’ve not tried yet and I want to worry some people including myself by writing them down. Some might also be relevant to others such as local authority arts teams or trusts and foundations.

1. Make ourselves known whenever at events, openings etc. Because it’s not enough to see, we need to be seen to see, and then maybe even have a conversation.
2. Invite artists and arts workers who’ve moved into the region from elsewhere in for a chat and a drink and introduce them to people
3. When setting up working groups or project teams as have someone from outside the organisation involved even if there isn’t an external ‘steering group’.
4. Do more, smaller, cheaper ‘conversation’ events.
5. Send staff out on secondment to arts organisations and take staff in on secondment from arts organisations.
6. Open up some training sessions to artists or arts organisations.
7. Get even more artists or producers onto Regional Councils and governing bodies.
8. Have an Open Day, including the chance to observe decision-making meetings.
9. Improve our website to give people the chance to discuss the things we’ve funded – not as funding decisions (unless they really want) but as art.
10. Explore how we can employ people whilst they stay engaged in their own practice, arts development or board memberships, rather than having to give all that up to work for us.
11. Have a open ‘works outing for the arts sector’ on a beach or in a park in the summer
12. Drop in on some of the artist workspaces we’ve helped build and see what people are up to
13. Open up work place Blood Service sessions to artists so they can share our pain and see for themselves if we really are blood-sucking parasites
14. Wear our Arts Council England lapel badges at all times so people know who we work for and make it a condition of funding that all funded artists do likewise so people know who they are too and can talk to them about it.
15. Make sure all staff read two recent Demos publications. States of Trust: How to build better relationships between councils and the public, though focused on local authorities has some very relevant points for Arts Councils. Making the most of collaboration by Peter Bradwell looks at ‘co-design’ – essentially the involvement of users in designing public services – and is equally stimulating. We already do some of what’s suggested, but there’s more to think on.

Ok, not all easy or maybe even practical, and I didn't mention peer review or panels once, and at least one of those was a joke...

(I have actually got someone looking into the Blood Service idea, so not that one...)

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Is Tees Valley really the Land of Giants?

Back in May I wrote about a seminar on the 10th birthday of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. I mentioned some other big public art projects. This morning I was at the launch of another, even bigger, which I couldn’t mention at the time. Tees Valley Giants is a five piece, five site, 10 year work by Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond, and today the first, Temenos, was unveiled in Middlesbrough. It is the world’s biggest public art initiative. (Until we hear different.) You can read local coverage of it here. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a productive debate: if everyone likes it straight away, it may not have the ‘transforming’ effect necessary.

For me this is not primarily a story of ‘culture-led regeneration’ – though it is that, in spades. Nor is it a story of partnership – though it is that too, with five local authorities, a regional development agency, the Arts Council, a regional foundation, and even the local premiership football club on board (Middlesbrough FC contributing cold hard cash to set an example of civic leadership to some other clubs) under the leadership of Tees Valley Regeneration. It is a story about art (and engineering) and excellence. Get a world class artist into the right place and the unimaginable can happen. You can link the past and future and you can bring people together behind a vision. Take a virtual tour here. And next year, all being well, come to Middlesbrough and see the real thing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

How did I end up on stage with an Undertone?

It must be conference season. After the one on social capital I wrote about recently, last week I had the pleasure of chairing ‘Our Creative Talent’, an event organised by three partners: Arts Council England, Voluntary Arts Network and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The event marked the launch of a major piece of research into participation in the arts through voluntary and amateur groups, and through informal learning. You can download it here. There are some pretty impressive statistics about people’s involvement in the voluntary and amateur arts, although as with most ‘groundbreaking’ research, it raises as many further questions as it gives answers. (Or at least that’s what the researchers were trying to persuade me...)

Speakers ranged from Margaret Hodge to Feargal Sharkey, once an Undertone now head of British Music Rights and possibly Britain’s only strategic ex-pop star via Alan Davey and Robin Simpson (whose blogs I heartily recommend: start at Cultural Playing Field.) There were various workshops, then a panel session where I had that almost impossible task of spotting people put their hands up.

There was a really positive atmosphere throughout the day and it is clear that the voluntary arts are seen differently than was the case when I first wielded a long-arm stapler in their cause. There are lots of questions to work through though: can the sector deliver on quality consistently enough? How is the sector changing given the aging population? How do we encourage better connections with the professional and funded sectors (the right, better connections)? How do we cope with the destruction of adult education in this country? For starters.

You can read all about the conference, and listen to some of the sessions on the Voluntary Arts England site. (Follow the Flickr link there enough and you can see me on stage with Feargal Sharkey. I’m not embarrassed to say that gives me a thrill. Click here to see a seasonal Undertones classic. Or here to see him in full pre-smoking ban glory on my favourite Undertones song. )

Monday, 7 July 2008

Can you feel the force?

How my kids laughed at this… Apparently I am one of 500 of the most influential people in the North East of England. Well, at least according to a highly unscientific and undemocratic exercise in The Journal newspaper, that is, and if you want to make a sarcastic comment about the North East please do so using the normal channels!

The reason I mention it, apart from amused pride, is that I’m interested in the high number of cultural figures in the list. (To be honest, it’d be a shame if someone in my job wasn’t on that list, so I don’t put it down to my personal qualities especially.) These range from novelists such as Val McDermid and David Almond through choreographer Liv Lorent, poet Sean O’Brien, playwright Lee Hall, a good set of Chief Execs, producers and festival directors right through to giants such as Ant and Dec. The ‘Culture, media and the arts’ index is twice as long as the public sector one, for instance – surprising perhaps as the public sector is a big employer in this region. And there are more of us than there are lawyers. (They can probably outspend us in the Influence bar though.) I take that as an indication that culture here has, at least in part, and in the perception of whoever put this list together, put itself at the heart of regional life. On a good day I always think that, but it’s good to have some ‘external’ confirmation.

(Another confirmation came last week in that the announcement of the Hodge Review and the abolition of the regional cultural consortia was, somewhat surprisingly, front page news in The Journal.)

Another noticeable trend is the number of ex-Arts Council/Northern Arts people now in senior non-arts jobs in the region. Maybe that’s the kind of thing we need to really ‘mainstream’ the arts: more people prepared to dirty their hands with the process of ‘influence’ and power? Perhaps the various ‘cultural leadership’ schemes need to also think about how some people can move not just ‘up’ but ‘across’?

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Who wants to be in charge?

Here’s an interesting example of what no-one in the real world calls participatory decision-making or 'peer involvement'. Tennent’s, the lager company which sponsors a number of music events in Scotland, have created The Tennent’s Mutual. This gives control of programming, ticket prices, even format of gigs over to the public – or those music fans who want to become members of The Tennent’s Mutual. Founding members of The Mutual will select artists, debate locations for gigs and call the shots on ticket prices by interacting as a community and voting for their preferences online. Tennent’s have started it off with a fund of £150,000, and recruited a number of expert advisors to share their views but not make decisions. Any profits will be reinvested in future gigs or festivals.

Although it’s early days, the Vote and Forum and sections show how people are reacting to the chance to influence things. Even where the bank account went was voted upon by members. It will be interesting to see how the programme differs from the norm – and whether this kind of involvement guarantees big audiences.

Anyone aware of other arts organisations devoting even part of their programming budgets to this kind of public involvement? And how might this model be used by public funders of the arts – be it Arts Council or, say, local authorities? (Who are increasingly taking parallel approaches for local decisions such as street furniture, repairs and so on.)

I came across this model in Trendwatching’s latest briefing – ‘41 new business ideas to copy or be inspired by’. Well worth a look, for entertainment value if nothing else.